The Rides of March. … And Beyond

Bender revisits Indiana’s perfect season – Part I

The Rides of March. … And Beyond

When Bob Bender packed his bags and headed off to college during the summer of 1975, he had no idea what a legendary journey was ahead of him.

Seven months or so later, he and his Indiana University teammates became the last college basketball team to achieve a perfect season.

The 1975-76 Hoosiers' remarkable 32-0 run became a hot topic again this season as Wichita State went 35-0 before falling to Kentucky in the NCAA Round of 32. The Shockers made the most serious bid to achieve an undefeated campaign since 1990-91, when the University of Nevada-Las Vegas went 34-0 before falling to eventual champion Duke in the Final Four.

Bender, in his first season as a Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach, was a freshman guard on Indiana's 1976 national championship team, which completed its run of the table with an 86-68 triumph over Big Ten Conference rival Michigan in the national title game – its third victory of the season over the Wolverines.

As Bender watched the Bucks warm up for a recent game from a seat on the bench, he began a trip down memory lane with a twinkle in his eye.

“We won it in Philadelphia.” he recalled. “It was the end of the UCLA era, so to speak. It was unbelievable.

“When we won the national championship and went back to Indiana, it was just bedlam on campus. Even for us as freshmen, it was the best spring of our lives.”

The path that led to Bender’s championship journey began in Quantico, Va., where he was born in 1957. He moved with his family to Illinois, where he played football and baseball and developed into an All-American basketball player at Bloomington High School.

A coach’s son, Bender became team captain and averaged 23 points per game as a senior to earn a spot on All-American lists that included the likes of Darrell Griffith, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Cartwright. He was presented with the 1975 Chicago Sun Times Player of the Year Award, which honored such other prep phenoms as Quinn Buckner, Isiah Thomas, Doc Rivers and Kevin Garnett.

Among the many college coaches who monitored him closely during his senior season was Robert Montgomery Knight, who was in his fourth season as head coach at Indiana University.

“All of the recruiting back then was done at the high school games, especially in the Midwest,” Bender said. “When I was coming up and playing in Illinois, there was a state rule that we couldn’t go to a basketball camp. They didn’t allow that until I was out of high school. The high school season was when the recruiting was done and the significance of the recruiting was first and foremost.

“Coach Knight has a presence, as you could imagine. When he walked in the gym, there might have been other coaches there, but all of the attention drifted to Coach Knight. A lot of times when he came, it wasn’t a big game. He didn’t care about maybe seeing you in the state tournament. He wanted to see you in a regular-season game where he could tell what you were really all about.”

Bender doesn’t remember being fazed by Knight’s presence at his games.

“I don’t think it rattled me,” he said. “My strength was my ability to pass the ball. I played on a really good high school team with guys who could really shoot and score the ball. I never felt the pressure that, ‘I have to score a lot of points tonight’ when Coach Knight was there to watch. I just did what I did.”

Knight was known for his honesty as a recruiter.

“He was great in recruiting,” Bender said. “He was very, very honest. He told guys that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. I went and watched them practice a few times in my junior year. Even with a recruit sitting in the stands watching practice, he didn’t hold back at doing what he does. I don’t think he can.”

Bender’s recruitment became intense.

“Back then, there were no restrictions on assistant coaches being on the road,” he said. “Even grad assistants could be on the road. The person who came and saw me the most was Mike Krzyzewski, who was a grad assistant at Indiana at the time. Then he left Indiana at the end of my senior year in high school to become head coach at Army.”

Bender noted how strategically Knights’ staff and his team were constructed.

“When you think about the people who were on that Indiana staff – Dave Bliss went on and had great success at Oklahoma and New Mexico, Bob Weltlich went to Mississippi and Texas, Bob Donewald went to Illinois State -- they were all Midwest guys. I think a lot of things chemistry-wise had a lot to do with guys having a common bond or common thread throughout the coaching staff and the entire roster.

“If you look at our roster, we had only one player – a guy who was in my class, a close family friend of Coach Knight’s who walked on – who wasn’t from Indiana, Illinois or Ohio. He took pride in that. He felt that you developed more of a passion for being at Indiana if you were from the Midwest, especially those three states. He had recruited those states really well. Going back before me, if you were  from those states and you were given an opportunity to go to Indiana, you didn’t pass it up.”

Bender became sold on IU.

“When I went and made my official visit, the school itself was another big advantage,” he said. “And the passion that IU fans and that whole environment creates is pretty special. It was really special back then.”

(Visit Bucks.com again soon for Part II of this story.)